Gov. Martin O’Malley included $1.5 million in his proposed budget for studies of the potential effects of drilling for natural gas in Western Maryland, but some are worried that it might not be enough money.
“This is a good down payment,” said Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), who is among a group of Maryland legislators who have been calling for the funding. Mizeur has sponsored legislation to put a moratorium on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation in Western Maryland.
The issue needs study before it moves forward, Mizeur and others say, because the method by which the gas would be extracted — hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, where a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the ground to release the natural gas trapped in shale rock formations — is controversial and may cause negative health and environmental effects, as some claim it has in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
About 90,000 acres have been leased in Garrett and Allegany counties for drilling, but O’Malley issued an executive order in 2011 that prohibited state agencies from granting permits until extensive studies were done. No funding sources have been identified until now.
The $1.5 million will be split into two pieces — $1 million to study the public health and economic impact of fracking, and $500,000 to establish baseline data of water and air quality.
“Whether this is enough money to cover the 18 areas of study we outlined in the executive order remains to be seen,” said Mizeur, adding that concerns such as fracking’s impact on climate change and on local transportation infrastructure appear to be missing from those specified for study in the budget.
Last year, Mizeur introduced a bill that would have required energy firms with leases to pay a per-acre fee to fund studies. Her proposal this year will allow, but not require, the state to levy such fees.
”My preference would be for the industry to pay, but there are ways for us to potentially get this back from the industry,” Mizeur said, adding that any severance tax set up when and if drilling moves forward could repay the $1.5 million in taxpayer money.
O’Malley’s budget also brought joy to the pro-fracking faction in the General Assembly.
Del. Wendell R. Beitzel (R-Western Maryland) said he was surprised to see the money in the budget.
“I’m appreciative of the fact that the governor included money for these studies the state apparently feels are necessary,” Beitzel said, adding that he is worried it might be too late to attract energy companies into Maryland to explore and drill. “Even if we get to the point that permits can be issued, if we make so many more regulations than our neighbors, there may not be any real interest in Maryland.”